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From Book Burning to Terrorism:
Sweden’s Bumpy Road to NATO

By Dr. Kateryna Tyminska,
PhD, Foreign Policy and Security Expert

On 10 July 2023, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg ‘welcomed President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s agreement to forward the accession protocol for Sweden to the Grand National Assembly as soon as possible, and work closely with the Assembly to ensure ratification’.[1] Türkiye rendered Sweden’s NATO membership contingent with ‘the need to fight terrorist organizations and their extensions indiscriminately’.[2]     

 

Political and diplomatic efforts to unblock any reservations were reflected in the Trilateral Agreement by Foreign Ministers of Finland, Sweden and Türkiye. Signed in June 2022, during NATO Summit in Madrid, the document stipulates that ‘Finland and Sweden will not provide support to YPG/PYD, and the organization described as FETO in Türkiye’.[3] YPG/Yekîneyên Parastina Gel are People’s Protection Units of Syrian Kurds who played key role in safeguarding Syria from Bashar al-Assad’s regime. However, Türkiye sees YPG as an arm of the PKK/Partiya Karkeren Kurdistan or the Kurdistan’s Workers’ Party. PKK was established in 1978 as a militant group with the aim to create an independent Kurdistan and control Kurdish areas in Iran, Iraq, Syria, and Türkiye.[4] PKK is a terrorist organisation – as highlighted by Türkiye – because it ‘wants to suppress the diversity of Türkiye, prevent participation and integration of Türkiye’s citizens of Kurdish origin and intimidate the people in the region’.[5]

 

Turkish internal politics and tensions with its Kurdish minority became one of the leverage tools of slowing Sweden’s accession to NATO. Türkiye’s assumptions that Kurds in Sweden relate to YPG/PYD brought fears within Kurdish groups in Sweden. For them Sweden has not only become their new hope and land of opportunities, but a place of safety and personal freedoms. Local Kurdish groups estimate that there are around 100,000 Kurds living in Sweden as of 2016.[6] However, Swedish legislation does not foresee the collection of any ethnic background information of Swedish residents. Official statistics show that of the 10,5 million people in the country, 2,145,674 are foreigners of which 55,954 were born in Türkiye.[7-8]

 

A variety of Kurdish community organisations prove Kurds’ strong immersion in Swedish society while preserving their identities in Sweden: the Kurdish Institute in Stockholm, Kurdish Library in Bromma, Swedish-Kurdish Association and the Kurdish Peace Association—to name a few. Despite this, it would be too simplistic to explain Ankara’s critique of Stockholm’s policy solely by the ‘Kurdish case’. A series of public burnings of the Holy Qur’an across Sweden in 2023 did not mitigate Stockholm’s ardent attempts to be a reliable NATO applicant. On the contrary, it fueled broader debates over Sweden’s domestic policies and questioned the country’s interpretation of its national legislation human rights and freedoms.

 

Blasphemy vs. Freedom of Religion

 

When discussing public manifestations of blasphemy, one’s thoughts often turn to the tragic events of January 2015 when the French satirical weekly, Charlie Hebdo (Paris), was the target of a terrorist attack due to caricatures of Prophet Muhammad.[9] A month later, Danish capital of Copenhagen was shocked with 200 shots in a downtown café aimed at the Swedish artist Lars Vilks, who ‘has faced death threats for caricaturing prophet Muhammad’.[10] In September 2020, a stabbing of two persons occurred outside Charlie Hebdo former offices. The event coincided with the trial of ‘14 alleged accomplices’ and Charlie Hebdo’s reprints of the controversial caricatures.[11] One of the earliest tragic events dates back to 2005 when the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten published similar caricatures. The media later acknowledged that it ‘would not have published the drawings had it known the consequences of its decision’.[12]

 

In June 2023, during one of the main Islamic holidays of Eid al-Adha, the Swedish capital was the site of a public burning of the Holy Qur’an outside the city’s main mosque. The action sparked condemnations of the Swedish authorities in several Muslim countries[13] followed by calls to ‘boycott of Swedish products after the Quran was burned at a protest in Stockholm’.[14] and the Swedish diplomatic mission in Iraq was attacked by protesters and set on fire.[15] Regrettably, this was not the first act of blasphemy in Sweden.Earlier this year, Danish-Swedish far-right politician, Rasmus Paludan, burned the Holy Qur’an in front of the Turkish Embassy in Stockholm.[16] In 2020, he was ‘blocked from attending the rally of far-right activists burning the Holy Qur’an in Malmo and ‘banned from entering Sweden for two years’.[17] This time Sweden and Türkiye both issued an arrest warrant in absentia for Rasmus Paludan.[18-19]

 

Human Rights, Freedoms, and National Security

 

In May 2023, Sweden introduced border controls explaining it ‘primarily due to the elevated threat to Sweden, linked to the events such as previous demonstrations at which Qur’ans were burned’.[20] There is no doubt that any action aimed to disturb Sweden’s public safety and target national security are taken very seriously. As explained by the Ministry of Justice of Sweden, ‘the individual’s right to freedom of religion is also strongly protected by the Constitution (…) On the other hand, religions as such are not protected against expressions of opinion that challenge religious messages or that may be perceived as hurtful to believers’.[21]

 

The international condemnation that Sweden faced in the light of the Holy Qur’an burning pushed for a broader national debate regarding country’s own legalities, human rights and freedoms, estimates of threats to national security.

Votes during the ‘urgent debate on the alarming rise in premeditated and public acts of religious hatred as manifested by recurrent desecration of the Holy Quran’ at the Fifty-Third Regular Session of the UN Human Rights Council reflected a growing gap in understandings of thin legal borders between freedom of expression and religious tolerance.[22-23] What the Muslim world perceives as acts of Islamophobia and religious hatred, characterized by inflammatory acts against Muslim minorities, is seen differently in Western societies. Professor Asma Barlas (emeritus), of Ithaca College (NY), explains it as ‘some Westerners seek to demonstrate and reproduce their dominion over Muslims by caricaturing and maligning our sacred symbols at will (…) they are thus able to achieve epistemically what they cannot physically or legally’.[24] The propagation of such narratives and thoughts brings no good on neither side of the aisle. Anger, social and political discontent must not manifest into violence that threatens public order, personal and community security.

              

Third Parties, Non-State Actors and Religious Hatred

 

Instances of public disrespect towards the symbols of another religion, ethnicity or minority group should not be taken from a single perspective. In Sweden, a multidimensional character of disturbances and domestic unrest is obvious. What is  worrying is the risk of exploiting such situations in the interest of third parties and non-state actors wishing to saw distrust and doubt in the society. The Swedish Security Service (SAPO – Säkerhetspolisen) declared that ‘recent development with threats targeting Sweden and Swedish interest abroad serious’.[25]

The Minister for Civil Defense of Sweden, Carl-Oskar Bohlin, agreed that desecrating the Holy Quran ‘made Sweden a target for malicious influencing campaigns (…) we can see how Russia-backed actors are amplifying incorrect statements such as that the Swedish state is behind the desecration of holy scriptures’.[26]

 

The state of world affairs had been intensified with activities by state and state-like actors, hybrid risks and blurred legislation. In this view, due respect and protection of human rights and freedoms take pillar roles in strengthening national security, personal well-being and state welfare. Attempts to simplify actions and reactions will only broaden the gaps and leave less space for tolerance and mutual respect. These voids run the risk of being filled with fake narratives playing in the interests of those reaching for bigger geopolitical goals and regional instabilities. Sweden’s NATO membership has grown into regional tension for countries opposed to any security shifts in the region. In this way, argument-based condemnations by Muslim countries over the Holy Quran burning or necessity to ban terrorist organisations, may be manipulated as instruments of hybrid tactics by third parties.

In the light of the continued violence in the Middle East and rising of the Hamas terrorist activities, manipulations and twisted facts go hand-in-hand with assaults on the ground against the civilians. Regrettably, the proclaimed goals for territorial concessions are enhanced by hybrid tactics in the hands of hawkish third parties that seize the momentum.

 

(18/01/2024)
 

Sources:

 

[1] North Atlantic Treaty Organization, News, ‘NATO Secretary General Welcomes Turkiye’s Decision to Forward Sweden Accession Protocols to Parliament’, 10 July 2023, https://www.nato.int/cps/en/natohq/news_217015.htm

[2] Giyar Guldogan, ‘Turkiye Presses for EU Membership to Ratify Sweden’s NATO Bid’, Anadolu Agency, 10 July 2023, https://www.aa.com.tr/en/turkiye/turkiye-presses-for-eu-membership-to-ratify-swedens-nato-bid/2941489

[3] North Atlantic Treaty Organization, Trilateral Memorandum, 28 June 2022, https://www.nato.int/nato_static_fl2014/assets/pdf/2022/6/pdf/220628-trilat-memo.pdf

[4] The Kurdish Project, Kurdistan’s Workers’ Party, https://thekurdishproject.org/history-and-culture/kurdish-nationalism/pkk-kurdistan-workers-party/

[5] Republic of Turkiye, Ministry of Foreign Affairs, PKK, https://www.mfa.gov.tr/pkk.en.mfa

[6] The Local.SE, ‘Swedish Turks and Kurds Fear Revenge Violence’, 19 February 2016, https://www.thelocal.se/20160219/turks-and-kurds-fear-revenge-violence-in-sweden

[7-8] Official Statistics of Sweden, Population by Country of Birth and Country of Origin, 31 December 2022, https://www.scb.se/BE0101-en#_Keyfigures

Official Statistics of Sweden, Population by Country of Birth and Country of Origin, 31 December 2022, https://www.scb.se/BE0101-en#_Keyfigures

[9] Elisabeth Ponsot, ‘Pencils Raised from Barcelona to Nantes in Solidarity with Paris Victims’, PBS NewsHour, 10 January 2015, https://www.pbs.org/newshour/world/pens-raised-barcelona-nantes-solidarity-paris-victims

[10] Chris Johnston, ‘One Dead and Three Injured In Copenhagen ‘Terrorist Attack’, The Guardian, 14 February 2015, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2015/feb/14/copenhagen-blasphemy-lars-vilks-prophet-muhammad-krudttonden-cafe

[11] Tangi Salaün, ‘Never-Ending Nightmare’: Violence Returns to Paris Street Where Charlie Hebdo Was Attacked’, Reuters, 25 September 2020, https://www.reuters.com/article/us-france-security-scene/never-ending-nightmare-violence-returns-to-paris-street-where-charlie-hebdo-was-attacked-idUSKCN26G2G8

[12] Gwladys Fouché, ‘Danish Paper Regrets Publishing Cartoons’, The Guardian, 03 February 2006, https://www.theguardian.com/media/2006/feb/03/pressandpublishing.religion4

[13] Alissa J.Rubin and Isabella Kwai, ‘Sweden Is Condemned in the Muslim World for Allowing Burning of Quran’, The New York Times, 29 June 2023, https://www.nytimes.com/2023/06/29/world/middleeast/quran-burning-stockholm-sweden.html

[14] Helen Whittle, ‘Muslim Nations Call for Boycott of Swedish Products’, Deutsche Welle, 28 July 2023, https://www.dw.com/en/muslim-nations-call-for-boycott-of-swedish-products/a-66379709#:~:text=Earlier%20this%20week%2C%20the%20Cairo,week%20in%20Copenhagen%2C%20Denmark%27s%20capital.

[15] Al Jazeera and News Agencies, ‘Swedish Embassy in Iraq Relocates after Attack over Quran Burning’, 21 July 2023, https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2023/7/21/swedish-embassy-in-iraq-relocates-after-attack-over-quran-burning

[16] Mehmet Guzel, Turkish Muslims Protest Quran Burning in Sweden, Associated Press, 22 January 2023, https://apnews.com/article/politics-protests-and-demonstrations-sweden-turkey-istanbul-9ff6f1d4a2cc361ed265a786e31d4ee1

[17] TRT World and Agencies, ‘Riots in Sweden After Quran Burning by Far-Right Activists’, 28 August 2020, https://www.trtworld.com/europe/riots-in-sweden-after-quran-burning-by-far-right-activists-39309

[18-19] Rafiq Q.Tschannen, ’Sweden Issues an Arrest Warrant for Anti-Islam Politician Paludan’, The Muslim Times, 09 May 2023, https://themuslimtimes.info/2023/05/09/sweden-issues-arrest-warrant-for-anti-islam-politician-paludan/  

Serdar Acil, ‘Turkiye Issues Arrest Warrant for Far-Right Danish Politician Over Quran Burning’, Anadolu Agency, 20 July 2023, https://www.aa.com.tr/en/turkiye/turkiye-issues-arrest-warrant-for-far-right-danish-politician-over-quran-burning/2950271

[20] Government Offices of Sweden, Article from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, 02 July 2023, https://www.government.se/articles/2023/07/we-want-to-stop-those-who-seek-to-come-to-sweden-and-commit-crime/
[21] Government Offices of Sweden, Article from Ministry of Justice, ‘Freedom of Expression and Freedom to Demonstrate in Sweden’, 26 January 2023, https://www.government.se/articles/2023/01/freedom-of-expression-and-freedom-to-demonstrate-in-sweden/

[22-23] Al Jazeera, ‘UN Motion after Sweden Quran Burning: How Did Your Country Vote?’, 12 July 2023, https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2023/7/12/un-bodys-motion-on-quran-burning-how-did-your-country-vote

UN Human Rights Council, Media Center, ‘Human Rights Council Concludes Fifty-Third Regular Session After Adopting 30 Resolutions and Holding an Urgent Debate on Religious Hatred’, 14 July 2023, https://www.ohchr.org/en/news/2023/07/human-rights-council-concludes-fifty-third-regular-session-after-adopting-30

[24] Asma Barlas, ‘Reprinting the Charlie Hebdo Cartoons is Not About Free Speech’, Al Jazeera, 10 September 2020, https://www.aljazeera.com/opinions/2020/9/10/reprinting-the-charlie-hebdo-cartoons-is-not-about-free-speech

[25] Swedish Security Service, ‘Sweden Subject to Serious Threats’, 08 February 2023, https://sakerhetspolisen.se/ovriga-sidor/other-languages/english-engelska/press-room/news/news/2023-02-08-sweden-subject-to-serious-threats.html

[26] The Guardian, ‘Russia ‘Using Disinformation’ to Imply Sweden Supported Qur’an’s Burning’, 26 July 2023, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2023/jul/26/russia-using-disinformation-to-imply-sweden-supported-quran-burnings

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